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Reading the World: Literary Studies in the 80’s

Spivak, Gayatri C.

After my public lecture on "Literature and Life" in March 1980 at the Riyadh
University Center for Girls [sic], a student asked me with some asperity: "It's all
very well to try to live like a book; but what if no one else is prepared to read? What
if you are dismissed as an irresponsible dreamer?"I found an answer to her question
at the tail end of a metaphor:" Everyone reads life and the world like a book. Even
the so-called' illiterate.' But especially the 'leaders' of our society, the most 'responsible'
nondreamers: the politicians, the businessmen, the ones who make plans.
Without the reading of the world as a book, there is no prediction, no planning, no
taxes, no laws, no welfare, no war. Yet these leaders read the world in terms of
rationality and averages, as if it were a textbook. The world actually writes itself
with the many-leveled, unfixable intricacy and openness of a work of literature. If,
through our study of literature, we can learn ourselves and teach others to read the
world in the 'proper' risky way, and to act upon that lesson, perhaps we literary
people would not forever be such helpless victims." It is difficult to say that very
last bit to a woman in Saudi Arabia. So I added, half to myself, and with a sense of
failure: "Mere literary studies cannot accomplish this. One must fill the vision of
literary form with its connections to what is being read: history, political
economy-the world. And it is not merely a question of disciplinary formation. It is
a question also of questioning the separation between the world of action and the
world of the disciplines. There is a great deal in the way."
In that exchange I was obliged to stress the distinction between my position and
the position that, in a world of massive brutality, exploitation, and sexual oppression,
advocates an aesthetization of life. Here I must stress that I am also not interested in answers to questions like "Whati s the nature of the aesthetic?" or "How indeed are we to understand 'life'? "My concern rather is that: 1) The formulation of such questions is itself a determined and determining gesture. 2) Very generally speaking, literary people are still caught within a position where they must say: Life is brute fact and outside art; the aesthetic is free and transcends life. 3) This declaration is the condition and effect of "ideology."4 ) If "literary studies "is to have any
meaning in the coming decade, its ideology might have to be questioned



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Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
National Council of Teachers of English
Published Here
March 13, 2015